Thursday, September 30, 2010


Is It Possible?

Note to all cashiers and clerks everywhere: If you can't help people and talk at the same time, SHUT UP and just do the thing you're being paid for. If your fingers and mouth can work simultaneously, cool, but I've seen many clerks whose fingers stop the second their mouths start. This is not about ruthless efficiency at all costs, or rushing through life. It's about attending to the flow of energy around you and encouraging it rather than getting in its way.

I think true multi-tasking, that is, literally doing two tasks that require attention, consciously and simultaneously, is probably impossible for vast majority of human beings. Sure, we can walk and talk at the same time but the walking is automatic and not really a "task".

I consider myself pretty good at what other people would call multi-tasking. But when I give the appearance of multi-tasking it's because I'm doing one of two things: either I am rapidly shifting my attention back and forth between two tasks during the spaces in each task when my attention isn't needed there; or I am giving my full attention to only one of the tasks, because the other one is so automatic that I don't have to give it very much attention, like walking.

When I was a cashier, most of the tasks involved I had totally mastered, so my mind was free to chat a bit while I was doing it. I could also start one task chain and whenever there was a pause where I had to wait for something out of my control, I could start another. For instance, I'd put some smoothie ingredients into a blender and start it mixing, then I'd turn to the counter to ring someone up, I'd tell them their total and if they started to fumble around for change I'd quickly reach back and turn off the blender. If they fumbled further, I'd grab a glass and get it ready to pour that smoothie into. I'd take the payment, make change, pour the smoothie, put it on the counter, ring up the next customer, call out the person's name who ordered the smoothie and wipe the counter while that person was getting their money out. And so on, all through my shift. And if I was on top of everything, I could have some conversations with the staff and/or the customers while I was at it. But...if the tasks required my full attention, the first thing to go was the chatting, because chatting didn't help any of the tasks get done, and because I wasn't being paid to chat.

I once worked at cafeteria type vegetarian restaurant a few blocks from the World Trade Center in Manhattan. We'd do literally a couple of hundred lunches a day. I was in charge of ringing people up but I also had to keep all the drinks in a big iced display case thing stocked up and ready to go. The place was a madhouse at lunch. If a person even hesitated with their money, I had to remember their total and immediately ring up the next person and keep track of who paid what and who got what change. And this was doing all the math in my head as I went. If the second person also hesitated, sometimes my boss would start ringing up the third person back. It sounds crazy but we were all very good at it. And, I might suddenly get a tap on the shoulder and have to deliver a lunch on the 87th floor of the World Trade Center, while my boss took over the register. That would mean a dash out the door and through the crazy lunch hour pedestrian traffic into a quiet elevator for a relatively fast ascent, finding the office, delivering the lunch as courteously as possible, collecting the cash, another quiet elevator ride, and then another crazy dash through traffic right back to the front lines, ringing people up like crazy again! Needless to say, I did not do much chatting on this job! Most of my "chats" with the customers or the rest of the staff took the form of knowing glances and quick looks or smiles, at least until the lunch rush was over.

I haven't done that kind of work for years but just yesterday morning and afternoon, I was keeping an eye on a video transfer I was working on, burning and assembling CD's ( which included assembling the paper case inserts while the CD's were burning, and thinking ahead to which album I'd be burning next and getting things ready for that ), getting boxes and envelopes addressed and ready for mailing, as well as checking email and facebook. I did this because several of the tasks and mini-tasks did not require a lot of attention, and because whenever there was a space in one task chain that required any waiting, I immediately did something to move another task chain a bit further forward. To do this requires a certain amount of mental flexibility and processing speed. If you have it, you have it. If you don't, I suggest finding a job where it's not necessary.


  1. I only multitask when I'm doing one thing that I can do with little conscious effort, like stretching or walking or doing the dishes, and then something else like talking on the phone.

    Otherwise we just waste time mentally switching back and forth between the two tasks.

  2. John, I certainly prefer multi-tasking when one task is semi-automatic, but I don't find I'm wasting time by switching back and forth when one task involves pauses where I'd just be waiting anyway. See my examples above. When customer A is looking for his wallet, I start to tally customer B, while maintaining customer A's total in my mind. Whenever customer A is ready, I pause in customer B's process, finish with A and then resume B. If I didn't do this, I'd just be wasting time waiting for customer A to find his cash. (And in the above job I would have been fired!)

    I do this kind of multi-tasking regularly and am quite good at it. I know plenty of people who just can't. They have to do things more linearly, one thing at a time. They'd be overwhelmed quickly if they tried because they lack the mental flexibility and processing power. They might also have a real fear of screwing up and psychologically don't like taking any chances that might lead to that happening.

    For whatever reason, I have this ability. Like while a CD is burning in my duplicator, I assemble the paper inserts in the case and get the insert ready for whichever album is next. If the boxes are all ready for the discs and the CD is still not burned, I can check email while listening for the beep of the duplicator telling me that the CD is done.

    But anything that requires true consistent focus precludes multi-tasking anyway. True multi-tasking, as I wrote above, is probably impossible for all but a few genius savants and even then I have my doubts. I found this line in a blog: "Remember, Mozart could critically listen to something being played, while writing down full scale symphonic pieces, while composing an entirely different one in his head than the one he was writing down." So maybe there are rare people who have this ability. Like being able to read a book during a violin lesson. I've heard about chess masters who can play several games of chess at once, but I think they do it by compartmentalizing not true multi-tasking. Probably the best multi-taskers in the sense that I'm talking about are restaurant cooks, particularly in very busy restaurants, and mothers.

  3. Gene, you multitask very "smoothie." Good stories to illustrate your point.